There is often good reason to grumble about the selection of the Norwegian Nobel committee for its famous Peace Prize. Last year, for instance, the honor was bestowed upon former President Jimmy Carter, at least partly in recognition of his criticism of the foreign policy of the Bush administration. The whole thing was most unseemly.
This year, however, the committee managed to get it right when it chose Iranian lawyer-activist Shirin Ebadi. It must take extraordinary courage to be a human-rights activist in a place like Iran, and a female one at that. Yet, Mrs. Ebadi, a former judge, has been at it for more than 20 years, defending the rights of women and children, and working for the political freedoms that Iranians have been denied for decades now. If the Nobel Peace Prize has any meaning, this is exactly it.
Iran is a country that has been ruled by religious mullahs with an iron fist since 1979, when the shah was dethroned, a place where dissidence is usually rewarded with jail and torture is still part of traditional punishment. I will never forget the time Iranian dissidents brought a movie of a stoning to my office. It was unspeakable. International concerns over the spread of Islamic law have precisely at their roots Iran, which was lost to the world after the arrival of Ayatollah Khomeini and his fellow religious fanatics.
But equally to the point, the timing of the prize is right. Iran has reached a critical point, not just in its internal politics, but also its relations with the international community. It is a country sometimes described as being in a pre-revolutionary state, with a population that is 60 percent under the age of 18, and whose young people are deeply disillusioned with the religious establishment.
The Nobel Prize will help strengthen and spotlight Iran’s growing internal political opposition, which last summer gave rise to widespread student demonstrations. A crackdown resulted, but Iran’s reformers have now received new hope.
One quite stunning testimonial came from no less than the grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini himself, Iranian cleric Hossein Khomeini, who was in Washington a few weeks ago. “Now we have had 25 years of failed Islamic revolution in Iran,” he told Slate magazine, “and the people do not want an Islamic regime anymore.” With Americans troops already having “liberated” Iraq, he called for an immediate American invasion of Iran.
Would that it were so easy. With a sizable portion of the U.S. military tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan, and reconstruction consuming great amounts of American resources, such a smart move toward Tehran is not likely to be in the cards. (Nothing should be ruled out, of course.) That Iran represents a very serious problem, however, has clearly sunk in internationally.
Especially of concern is Iran’s nuclear program, which has been aided and abetted by Russia. Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have given Iran until Oct. 31 to open up all its nuclear sites to inspection to prove that it has no nuclear weapons program. This deadline is fast approaching.
Iran is, in fact, one case where Europeans and Americans currently agree. A nuclear Iran would destroy the whole strategic stability of the region, said a high-ranking German diplomat speaking in Washington this week: “It cannot happen. It would be a catastrophe.”
A letter expressing deep concern was recently sent to Tehran from the governments of Britain, France and Germany, and foreign ministers from the three countries traveled this week to Iran to reinforce the message, which seems to have produced some results, or at least a declaration of intentions by Iran to comply with IAEA demands.
Iran is twice the size of Iraq. It is politically unstable, possibly nuclear capable and known to sponsor terrorist groups infiltrating Iraq. Accordingly, the Bush administration needs to think fast and send an unequivocal message. International sanctions must be applied if the IAEA inspectors come up with incriminating evidence of a clandestine nuclear program. Iran is a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and must be held to its treaty obligations.
In addition, we need vigorous support for the burgeoning democratic forces in Iran, for instance, through an Iran Liberation Act, such as proposed by Sen. Jon Kyl. Iranian reformers now have an international figure in Shirin Ebadi to rally around, a Nobel Prize winner with a platform. She could be the galvanizing figure Iranians have been waiting for.